DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 14 November) — Mindanao’s lone Cardinal, Orlando Quevedo on Tuesday condemned the “abhorrent desecration” of the Catholic chapel in Labu-labu, Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao, described it as “most disturbing and provocative” but urged Catholics to “be calm” and “despite provocation, follow the Lord’s injunction of peace and not revenge.”
Quevedo, the Archbishop of Cotabato, issued a statement from Hong Kong, after checking with Datu Piang parish priest Raul Biasbas on the details of the vandalism committed on November 9 when the icons of Mary and two statues of San Isidro de Labrador, the patron saint of the village, were set on fire.
Senior Supt. Agustin Tello, provincial police chief, said there are strong indications that the religious icons were “intentionally burned” by suspected extremists.
“It’s very obvious that it was intentional. They put all together the religious icons and stuff at the altar table then burned it using gasoline,” he told MindaNews in a telephone interview.
Tello said the burning was reported to have happened at around 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, amid a blackout and heavy rain. The suspects, he added, passed through the side by destroying a portion of the cyclone wire. The entrance is grilled and padlocked.
He said two to three persons were likely behind the desecration.
As of Nov. 14, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the chapel which is under the supervision of the Sta. Teresita parish in Datu Piang town.
Biasbas, parish priest of Datu Piang, told MindaNews in a telephone interview that parishioners in Labu-labu were calm when he celebrated mass there last Sunday.
Catholics are a minority in the predominantly Moro town of Shariff Aguak and in the province of Maguindanao.
The chapel had been cleaned when Biasbas went there for the once-a-month mass last Sunday, using the partly burned wooden table during the mass.
Parishioners who went to the chapel after the firefighters put out the fire saw the burnt icons of Mama Mary and San Isidro on the table, along with the curtains and floor mat. Biasbas said the icons are not made of wood but white cement.
He said three rosaries were reportedly also placed on the table but were not burned. The crucifix was also spared.
He said they have no idea who attempted to burn the chapel but whoever perpetrated it entered the chapel by destroying a portion of the cyclone wire on the side of the chapel and climbing through the hole. Parishioners reported only one footwear mark on the wall, raising questions if only one person entered the chapel.
He said a passerby who saw the fire from the highway immediately reported the matter to the fire department which immediately responded.
Fr. Eliseo Mercado, former President of the Notre Dame University in Cotabato City and a former parish priest of Datu Piang, was saddened to learn what happened to the Labu-labu chapel, having served there as a young priest. Even at the height of the Moro rebellion, he said, Muslim neighbors and rebels respected that place of worship.
“Most disturbing and provocative”
For Quevedo, what happened in the chapel is “an abhorrent desecration of a place of Catholic worship.” He said religious statues that were meant to honor Jesus, his mother Mary, and San Isidro were “maliciously destroyed.”
“Jesus is a great prophet in Islamic belief as well as Lord and Savior in Christian doctrine,” he said.
The Holy Qur’an, Quevedo stressed, “holds Mary or Miryam as the most unique of all mothers. He said San Isidro, one of the great holy heroes of the Catholic faith, is the patron saint of Labu-labo Catholics.
“The destruction of their statues is gravely disrespectful of Catholic beliefs,” Quevedo said, adding this was “most disturbing and provocative.”
“Has the ISIS ideology of destructive religious hatred and intolerance penetrated once peaceful rural areas? Is it an attempt to destroy the harmonious relationships between Muslims and Christians? Is this crime trying to revive the old ‘Blackshirt-Ilaga’ religious war?” Quevedo asked. He was referring to the communal violence in the late 1970s involving Moro people and settlers, mostly over land-related issue, but passed off as a war between Muslims and Christians.
“Hoping against hope I pray that this is not so,” Quevedo said. He urged fellow citizens, government officials, and partners in the Bangsamoro peace process to help the security forces “to ferret out the individual or group responsible for this heinous sacrilegious crime.”
“I encourage religious leaders of different faiths to condemn any abuse of our respective religious of peace and prevent religious bigotry, hostility and conflict. I enjoin our Catholic faithful, laity, religious sisters and brothers and our priests to be always alert to the ongoing threats of violent extremism,” Quevedo said, as he asked them to “be calm” and “despite provocation, follow the Lord’s injunction of peace and not revenge.”
Fourth attack in one year
The Nov. 9 attack on the Labu-labu chapel is the fourth in the Archdiocese of Cotabato since November last year.
On November 27, 2016, the first Sunday of Advent, two persons were injured when a bomb exploded in front of the gate of the Our Lady of Hope Church in Esperanza, Sultan Kudarat.
On Christmas Eve, December 24, a grenade exploded in front of the Sto. Nino Parish In Midsayap, North Cotabato, injuring 18.
On June 21 this year, suspected members of the extremist Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) vandalized the Catholic chapel in Barangay Malagakit, Pigcawayan in North Cotabato as it laid siege there for several hours.
The local government unit of Midsayap condemned the December 24, 2016 bombing and urged its residents to “collectively fight these forms of violence with prayers and acts of love and to trust one another.”
“We believe that good shall always and will always triumph over evil,” the LGU statement read.
On Christmas Day, President Rodrigo Duterte visited Midsayap to comfort those who were injured and to hand over financial assistance to them. He also vowed to pay for the hospital and outpatient expenses.
In a statement, Quevedo expressed hope the “heartless perpetrators be quickly identified and brought to justice.”
“As chief shepherd of the flock, my heart reaches out with love and compassion to our parishioners wounded in the bombing outside the Church and Shrine of Señor Sto Niño, Midsayap, before the Holy Mass of Christmas ended. What was a sacred celebration of joy and thanksgiving ended in tragedy and sorrow. I condemn this violent terroristic act against the innocent as a crime that cries out to heaven, a crime that every religion of love and peace must condemn,” Quevedo said.
In the June 21 attack on Malagakit chapel, BIFF gunmen used hammers to destroy religious icons and fixtures in the chapel near a public school that another group of bandits ransacked and looted.
Quevedo condemned the attack as a “wicked desecration” and “gravely sinful.”
In a statement he issued then, Quevedo condemned the desecration of the Malagakit chapel “and most especially of the Sacred Hosts that were kept there for the Catholic faithful.”
“If the BIFF wants to have an image as a respecter of all religions, it must punish its members who perpetrated the odious desecration in Malagakit and educate all its members in strictly respecting other religions,” Quevedo said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas and Ferdinand B. Cabrera / MindaNews)